When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis this summer, actor Selma Blair seemed to greet me. She became the face of the autoimmune disease when she was diagnosed in 2018, and today, she’s everywhere anyone is talking about MS — including the covers of magazines with a stylish cane next to her hip.
When Blair joined the cast of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” this season, everyone who knew of my diagnosis expected me to tune in to support her. And I tried, but watching her dance didn’t make me feel excited. It made me queasy. For a while, I worried that my feelings were spiteful or mean, but my visceral reaction wasn’t about her. It was a response to ableism.
For a while, I worried that my feelings were spiteful or mean, but my visceral reaction wasn’t about her. It was a response to ableism.
During her debut performance, Blair and her partner, Sasha Farber, walked away from her cane to dance, displaying it as a prop behind them as if it were part of a set rather than a mobility aid. This might have been a very intentional and personal choice — but it reminded me of problematic stereotypes that pressure disabled people to conform to ableist standards. I worried that it promoted the misperception that mobility aids are objects of oppression rather than of freedom and movement. Teary-eyed judges called her an inspiration after the dance, but I didn’t feel inspired. I just felt nervous that she might get hurt.
And over time, she did. She revealed one of her bruises on social media. Blair unexpectedly announced she was leaving the show last week, explaining, “With a chronic illness, you do have special considerations, and my body is definitely taking a hit.” She shared the news after an MRI showed “intensive bone trauma and inflammation among rips and tears” that she feared could lead to “extensive damage” should she continue the competition.
The way she leaned on her MRI to qualify her need to quit the show reminded me of my own tendencies to seek proof of necessity before I grant myself rest. I struggle to self-advocate, and I admire Blair’s ability to communicate her needs, even if it took a professional opinion to help her do it. When Blair performed, her disability wasn’t obvious to the untrained eye. That kind of invisibility makes it even harder to speak up about boundaries and health concerns. When our challenges aren’t clear to those around us, we often struggle to validate our experiences and push ourselves harder to meet the demands of our environment until we crash.
Throughout five episodes, Blair explained that her MS symptoms include vision loss, instability, fatigue, lack of coordination, issues with balance and spatial awareness, difficulty shifting weight, and incomplete control of her legs. Viewers watched her struggle to get her body to cooperate during practice. Her muscles would involuntarily pause or seize, which she described as “freezing up.” She repeatedly worried that this might happen during a performance.
Despite that fear, her choreography was daring. As someone who frequently can’t find or feel my legs below me, I know it takes an enormous amount of concentration just to put on pants sometimes. I can’t imagine lifting those limbs over my head without help, so I’m sure she’s proud of her unassisted jumps, splits and cartwheels. Only she can decide whether those movements were necessary or right for her body; however, I hope she and her dancing partner at least considered adaptive techniques.
As a viewer, I would have appreciated seeing the pair discuss her disabilities more on camera as a team and collaborate about possible accommodations. Dance is a sport that values creativity and self-expression, and there are a variety of adaptive approaches that would prioritize safety without neglecting fun or affirmation. As someone who is afraid of relapses and setbacks, I’m also interested to learn how she attempted to stay healthy while keeping up with the competition.
The show itself didn’t seem interested in exploring the topic of accessibility, though. Producers crafted a narrative that shows Blair as someone who is constantly at odds with her disability. Blair and Farber’s segments focused on their continual attempts to overcome her symptoms as if they were something to try to resist and control rather than adapt to and work with.
The judges and hosts often made comments that felt objectifying, using Blair and other disabled people as a source of encouragement for those who aren’t disabled.
The judges and hosts often made comments that felt objectifying, using Blair and other disabled people as a source of encouragement for those who aren’t disabled. They applauded her for making the steps look easy and told her she’s able to achieve anything she puts her mind to. Following her last dance, one of the judges called her a miracle and told her she is “an inspiration and a light to all of us, especially showing other people how anything is possible.”
I couldn’t think of anything further from the truth — that anything is possible for people with MS. Because it is such an individualized disease, each person’s symptoms and experiences vary a lot. The community includes both full-time wheelchair users who communicate with assistive technology and those who have less life-changing flare-ups every once in a blue moon. What’s possible for Selma Blair just isn’t possible for some others.
Part of that has to do with access to treatment. The cost of prescription treatments for MS has increased 200% since 2009, with a median cost of $94,000 a year and some drugs costing over $100,000, leaving many patients without appropriate medical care.
The judges’ words, while well-intentioned, are the kinds of empty statements that made me feel more alone when I couldn’t afford my medication. I worry that they project false hope rather than tangible support to those suffering. Even worse, those phrases remind me more of the problematic platitudes used against me and other disabled people when others want us to push ourselves harder than we should. That pressure to keep up with the expectations of others or avoid letting someone else down might have been what pushed Blair’s body too far.
Her stepping away from the competition should demonstrate that these dehumanizing belief systems are flawed. If Blair had been able to listen to her body and meet her body’s needs throughout the competition, she might not have been forced to leave so soon. But it’s hard to unlearn internalized ableism, especially with so much toxic positivity floating around.
I recently discovered new ways to experience joy in movement by swimming a few days a week, and I’m trying to resist the urge to conform to other people’s standards when they encourage me to do more in the pool. Sometimes I feel like I should immerse myself in my new sport because it has been freeing and healing in a way that movement hasn’t been for me in a long time, but Blair’s decision to step back from a sport she grew to love reminds me that it’s OK to pace ourselves, take breaks and come back again when we’re ready.
“This is a dance for everyone who has tried and hoped they could do more,” she said before her last performance. Although her dance was beautiful, I was moved most by her words when she added that there’s “power in realizing when it’s time to walk away.” I hope you remember them when your own body is asking you to listen.